TOP 500 REVIEWERon 4 May 2008
This was Tarkovsky's seventh and final full-length work for the cinema; he died of cancer shortly after its completion. This thought-provoking 142-minute film tells the story of two days spent at the country home of actor-writer Alexander (played by Erland Josephson - Domenico in Tarkovsky's `Nostalgia') on the Swedish island of Gotland (the final home, incidentally, of Ingmar Bergman). The plot can be simply told.
Here Alexander lives with his young son and beautiful teenage daughter Marta (Filippa Franzen), and here he holds a small party to celebrate his birthday. His ex-wife Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood) and her new husband Victor (Sven Vollter) arrive, as does neighbour Otto (Allan Edwall - you may remember him from Bergman's `Fanny & Alexander'), who happens to be a retired teacher, is now the district postman, and all his life has collected facts about unexplained phenomena. (The quote at the head of this review is Otto's as he gives Alexander an antique map of Europe as his birthday present.) Also present is the maid Julia (Valerie Mairesse) and the enigmatic servant Maria (Gudrun Gisladottir), from Iceland. Her naming is significant, and Otto calls her a witch, "in the best sense".
Over these two days an apocalypse occurs (nuclear war is hinted) and Alexander suffers a spiritual crisis, making a vow to a God he long ceased to recognise, sacrificing for his son's sake the pleasures of his life if only things could go back to how they were before: "I will give thee all I have. I'll give up my family whom I love; I'll destroy my home; and give up Little Man [his son]. I'll be mute and never speak another word to anyone. I'll relinquish everything that binds me to life, if only thou dost restore everything as it was before, as it was this morning and yesterday."
I will not reveal the method of how he defies events - the psychically-sensitive Otto is the trigger and means - but when indeed time is reversed to life before the apocalypse, Alexander feels compelled to fulfil his vow in a very dramatic way. And that's the plot!!
But, of course, however sparse the plot of a Tarkovsky film may appear, the underlying aesthetic and philosophical issues provide a feast for the senses and the mind. Signature Tarkovsky stylistic tropes appear from the very beginning. Indeed, a long ten-minute tracking-shot opens the film. There are mirror shots; there are shots where vertical features such as tree trunks split the scene; there are switches from the colour of the delightful rural backwater that is Alexander's home to black-and-white images of a city in chaos, with abandoned half-destroyed vehicles littering the street and water (always water!) seeping through the detritus. Moreover, throughout the whole period from the onset of the apocalypse to its subsequent erasure, the film is presented with its colour reduced, as if the camera had a grey filter.
There is the usual exquisite framing of scenes. (Bergman's cameraman Sven Nykvist was the Director of Photography.) We see the bleak coastline and a solitary tree; coins and clothes scattered in winter mud and snow; curtains billowing in the soft wind. We hear the sound of the sea and of seagulls, of dripping water, of floors creaking, of clocks ticking, and of missiles passing overhead. Significantly, we hear the sound of a wailing shepherdess in the distance that always bodes the passing of an event. (Otto claims she is "an angel passing by, who saw fit to touch me.") We experience the delight of Leonardo's `Adoration of the Magi' -, a picture all about gifts to the divine - although Otto calls it sinister and says he has always been terrified by Leonardo.
The boy is at the centre of the film, and yet he is the only one who does not speak. He is, admittedly, recuperating from an operation, but the doctor admits nevertheless that, "Sociability is a burden. Not all of us can bear it." Throughout the film the boy is referred to by his father significantly as `little man': is there an underlying Christian symbolism here? Alexander tells him, "How different things would be if only we could stop fearing death." He tells him, "Sometimes I say to myself, if every single day, at exactly the same stroke of the clock, one were to perform the same single act, like a ritual, unchanging, systematic, every day at the same time, the world would be changed." The precise philosophical relevance here is to the planting of a tree in inauspicious circumstances; but if the tree is watered and fed systematically, it will grow and the world would be changed.
Some scenes defy (for me) explanation (so far). For example, why does Maria talk straight to the camera and list "The plates, the candles, the wine"? Why does Alexander's naked daughter chase cockerels out of her room - or am I being naïve here? There is even an element of slapstick comedy (rare for Tarkovsky) as Alexander tries to surreptitiously make his escape from home on Otto's bicycle.
The collectors' edition of this DVD contains the usual image gallery, production notes and filmographies. In the notes, Tarkovsky says, "The sole means of returning to a normal relationship with life is to restore one's independence vis-à-vis the material things of life and reaffirm one's spiritual essence. In this film I deal with one of the aspects of this struggle for anyone living in society: the Christian concept of self-sacrifice ... though the episodes are filmed as if they were realistic, they are conceived as parables." The filmographies include written critiques from Sven Nykvist, Erland Josephson, and Susan Fleetwood about working with Tarkovsky.
The extras also include a 97-minute film made after Tarkovsky's death, a film which is, in effect, a `making of ...' feature, with occasional readings of some of Tarkovsky's written views. It has scenes which did not make the final cut and an interview with Tarkovsky's last wife, Larissa. But the main drama is kept until the end, when filming of the final scene of the torching of the house failed due to the camera jamming. Charges to set the tree and the car alight also failed. In the meantime, of course, the house burned to the ground. The team had to work hard to rebuild the set, but in a week all was ready for a successful shoot.